Perspective at EScrap 2011

In the 1990s, I learned from a mentor, Sheldon Appel, of Perkit Folding Box Company (a small paper mill, incredibly still operating in inner city Boston in the 1990s) that in the recycling industry, we think we are recycling paper, plastic and metals.   Actually, he told me, we are recycling people, by creating jobs and patiently working with people desperate enough to work for us.  He said he had stopped making money running the paper mill years earlier, but still ran it in Mattapan, because the people who worked for him would have serious trouble finding blue collar work if they ever closed.

Shelly, Baynard Paul, Jim Harvey, Milty Shaeffer, the Golds... a generation of recyclers who had been around as the Massachusetts paper mill industry survived by recycling.  The larger and larger scale paper mills were moving closer and closer to the trees, up in Maine and Canada, and proximity to the urban areas which needed the paper was now easy to do with Eisenhower's system of interstate highways, undercutting the advantage of having paper mills close to cities.  While the recycling mills like Perkit and Newark Paperboard and American Tissue were indeed "saving trees", they didn't do it on purpose...   They were accidental environmental companies, turning to a feedstock that came from the city, in order to survive and compete with a maturing market.

There are parallels in e-waste, contract manufacturing, and refurbishing.  The display device "semiknockdown" factories in Asia are a lot like Perkit Box and Newark were in Massachusetts.  Bigger LED and LCD investments have gone into places like Northern China, and a 100 employee company in Penang or Semarang or Jakarta is just not as important in the PC industry as it once was.  But they are still "recycling people", creating affordable internet, and creating jobs in nations which must struggle to afford basic necessities like hospitals with beds and maternity wards with access to blood banks.   

The very best thing about my 8 years as a regulator (recycling programs director for Massachusetts in the mid 1990s) was that I could show up with a business card and listen to their stories, about the scrap drives in World War II, about the history of recycling, etc. from people like Johnny Gold, Shelly, Ben Harvey, and Baynard.  The best stories were not about "equipment" or the "hydropulpers" or the "mill screens".    The best stories were about people.

The paper had mills turned to their own source of raw materials, the "urban forests" and "city mining" of the recycling business.   But running what were now "small businesses" of 3-shift, 7 day paper milling was a labor of love for the people who ran these blue collar mills in rough cities like Lawrence, Haverhill, and southern Boston.

Growing into the recycling business in New England was a great, great advantage to me, because there was so much history and evolution to follow and learn from.  Some of the history was bitching and moaning, sometimes grudging days of competition still emerged in the stories.   But a lot of it was funny, tales of loyalty, tales of people in the recycling business who made us laugh or appreciate their humanity.   I remember the takedown of "M and O Waste Paper" in inner city Boston... and archaic, 2-story paper packing warehouse which dumped the office paper from the top floor into a bizarre "upstroke" baler installed in the basement, where the bales emerged.  The company had gone from rag picking in the depression to office fiber, not because of "earth day", but to keep their jobs.   They had a water hose on the top floor to add weight to the bales... "If people ever knew how much water we sold to the paper mills, they'd cry" said one of the employees, looking wistfully at the plant, which would soon be chopped into iron scrap at auction.  

It does matter that recycling saves trees, saves carbon, and is sustainable.   But the jobs created (jobs per ton are way better than forestry or mining) were as important to this inner city as they are to the Chicas Bravas in Mexico, or to the Islands of Indonesia which are still rebuilding from the Tsunami.

When I think about the stories I preferred hearing from my recycling mentors, I have to ask myself if I have become so negative in my anger over the people in Indonesia, China, Africa, etc. whose similar-scale computer repair and refurbishing operations are labelled "primitive".   The Watchdog accusers are not bad people, they really believe what they are saying about my friends.  And there are people in China and Africa who we cannot romanticize, who would turn you over and empty your pockets if they could.

But despite the crime rates, muggings and shootings in the Blue Hill Avenue area of Boston, Shelly came to work every day.   He shrugged when asked about the "neighborhood".

Pizza boxes and shoe box manufacturing.   It was high tech when the plant opened decades ago.   By the time I visited the recycling mill, it was no longer "buzzworthy".   This also happened to TV repair after the 1960s.

E-waste companies are at risk of exaggerating our importance.

It is nice to be important.

It is more important to be nice.

Let's spend some time with the geeks of color, lets work with the women in the violence-torn countryside of northern Mexico.  Let's see people for what they can do, not for what they cannot do, and slowy fix the repair and refurbishing economy, which is still important to 3 billion people who do have electricity, but cannot afford a brand new computer.

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